When I travel, I almost always opt for public transit. The lower cost, when compared to driving, is a main consideration. But the trip may be slower or will usually end up being less comfortable than in a car, and may even introduce a risk of theft or danger.
So what’s the other advantage? I find that public transit opens a door (sometimes a rusty, creaking one) into the daily lives of locals. Everyone is on the same level, in the same boat, literally and figuratively.
Since the vehicle–whether it be a train, bus, boat, or carro publico–is a required part of the daily experience of so many lives, the vehicle itself can often become a defining pillar of culture. In the case of Panama’s buses known as diablos rojos (“red devils”), the drivers and owners have been cognizant of such a notion, and have capitalized on it with a fleet of roving, hand-painted landmarks that have prowled the streets of the capital for two generations.
But, in the name of safety, comfort, and modernization, Panama City’s era of the diablo rojo has ended.
The city’s move did not come as a surprise. In 2006, I wrote about early rumblings to replace the fleet in Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car. In just eight short years, talk has turned to action.
My piece “The Death of the Red Devils” narrates my experiences in Panama City in 2012 as I explore how the city’s residents have been digesting the old fleet’s demise. The piece won first place in Transitions Abroad’s 2014 Narrative Travel Writing Contest, and has just been published on their website here.